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Sweeney Victory Tour Underscores Status as Gubernatorial Frontrunner

sweeney
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney

Fifteen hours after Gov. Chris Christie used his reelection victory rally to state his case for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) staged a four-county victory tour of his own that effectively opened the next campaign for governor.

The only question is, what year?

That, of course, depends on Christie, whose expected presidential bid could put Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the governor’s office and set up a special election in November 2016, a year before Christie is scheduled to leave office.

“There’s no question Christie’s running for president,” Sweeney declared emphatically, but brushed off repeated questions about his own plans.

Sweeney, the second most powerful elected official in New Jersey over the past four years, emerged from Tuesday’s election as the second-biggest winner after Christie, holding all 24 Democratic Senate seats despite a Christie landslide over Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and setting hims up as the favorite for the next Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“We got hit with a tidal wave, and we weathered it,” Sweeney said with satisfaction yesterday afternoon at a victory gathering in East Brunswick with Sens. Linda Greenstein and Peter Barnes (both D-Middlesex) and their running mates.

For Sweeney, it was the second stop of a 225-mile circuit that started with a Trenton press conference marking passage of the constitutional amendment he sponsored to raise the minimum wage. From East Brunswick, he went north to Fair Lawn for a victory meeting with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sens. Paul Sarlo and Robert Gordon (all D-Bergen) and then all the way down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic County for a celebration with Sens. James Whelan (D-Atlantic) and Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May).

The series of Sweeney-sponsored events drew a string of reporters and camera crews eager to look past Tuesday’s election and Christie’s presidential chances to the next gubernatorial election, in which Sweeney would be the early frontrunner.

“Sweeney certainly has the highest profile at present,” said Daniel J. Douglas, director of Stockton College's William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. “No one else measures up in terms of statewide name recognition, including members of Congress, who are generally unknown outside their districts.”

That was demonstrated in the August 13 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, in which Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt (both D-N.J.), two longtime members of Congress, were trounced by Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a race that underscored their lack of name recognition. Rep. William Pascrell (D-N.J.) would be a fiery candidate, but he and the other congressmen would have to give up their House seats if a Christie resignation set up a 2016 race, while 2017 would be a free shot, as it was for Pallone and Holt this year.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is the latest Democratic wunderkind, but just took office six months ago. Booker, who ran an indifferent campaign and won his Senate seat by a narrower margin than expected in an October 16 special election, will have to run for Senate again in 2014. If Booker decided to run for governor two or three years later against Sweeney, he would not be able to count on the support he received from most Democratic counties when he launched his U.S. Senate bid last June.

“The South Jersey folks are comfortable with Sweeney, which makes it easy for him to negotiate in the Legislature because he knows he has a significant number of votes he can count on,” Douglas said, referring to the 18 seats out of 21 held by Democrats in seven districts covering Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, and southern Burlington counties.

Furthermore, Sweeney, an Ironworkers Union organizer, and his South Jersey allies have been forging strong alliances throughout the state.

It was Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) who orchestrated the effort to hold onto Democratic majorities in both houses in the face of an expected Christie landslide and well-funded challenges by strong Republican candidates like former Sen. Peter Inverso (R-Mercer), Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, and Dave Stahl, the Democrat-turned-Republican mayor of East Brunswick.

And it was South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross who raised money for the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security that pumped millions of dollars to protect Democratic incumbents in the contested districts.

“Democratic fundraising in South Jersey has been reliable and consistent for years, and you can’t say that about most areas of the state,” Douglas noted, adding that the ability of South Jersey Democratic leaders to raise a large war chest would be a significant advantage for Sweeney and could discourage potential rivals. “We all saw how important money was in this campaign. Steve Sweeney was much more effective at getting on television than Buono, and she was the one running for governor.”

“South Jersey is clearly the power center of the Democratic Party today,” said Barnes.

It was Norcross who engineered the replacement of Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), whose boss, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, has been tainted by his endorsement of Christie, an investigation by the Election Law Enforcement Commission into improper use of campaign funds, and his taking advantage of a loophole in the law to collect a full pension on top of his six-figure county salary.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) will be introduced today as Oliver’s successor, cementing Sweeney’s and Norcross’s ties with Hudson County. In Bergen County, Sweeney has a close working relationship with Weinberg, whom he selected two years ago to replace the rebellious Buono as Senate majority leader after she bucked him on his pension and health benefits bill, and with Sarlo, the influential Senate Budget Committee chairman.

Furthermore, he has the gratitude of Democrats who survived tight races Tuesday despite the Christie landslide and know that they won’t face a serious challenge again until after the next legislative redistricting round in 2021.

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) thanked Sweeney at yesterday’s lunch, then when Sweeney brushed him off, Diegnan fixed him with a stare, grabbed his hand, and said, “All kidding aside, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

“He would make a great governor,” said Greenstein, who edged Inverso by just 1,200 votes in her fourth -- and toughest -- legislative victory in the past five years, but will not have to run again now until 2017.

As Senate president, Sweeney will have the biggest voice in deciding where to work with Christie on a bipartisan basis and where to draw the line, as he has done most notably in state Supreme Court confirmation battles.

It is Sweeney who will have the most important say in deciding whether the Democratic-controlled Legislature moves forward with enactment of a four-year phased-in property tax credit on state income taxes worth up to $1,000 that Christie wanted to enact prior to his keynote speech to the 2012 Republican National Convention and wants just as badly now.

“Nobody wants to cut taxes more than I do,” Sweeney said. “That was my proposal, not Christie’s. But we’re not going to do it unless the revenue is there to pay for it.”

Sweeney has an added incentive to work on a bipartisan basis with Christie because “if the governor moves up to run for president, that creates an opportunity for Steve Sweeney to replace him,” Douglas said “He can help Chris Christie achieve his goals and achieve his own at the same time. It’s the old Hudson County rule about promoting someone to create more room for yourself.”

A Sweeney run for governor would provide an opportunity for yet another reshuffling of the legislative leadership that would create opportunities for talented legislators who have been waiting in the wings. Sweeney would undoubtedly be succeeded by a North Jersey Democrat, while Greenwald, who stayed in the No. 2 Assembly leadership spot to allow Prieto to move up, would finally have his chance at the speakership.

Sweeney has been feuding with Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Union) and hoped he would face a challenge from within the GOP after predicting he would pick up the five Senate seats he needed to become Senate president, but failing to gain a single one.

However, an aide handed Sweeney a cell phone during yesterday’s lunch with an attachment showing him that Kean had a letter of support signed by 11 out of 15 of his GOP Senate colleagues. Sweeney shrugged as he read it.

Christie yesterday attributed his party’s failure to pick up more than two seats in the Assembly -- one of which was due to a scandal in which Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland) tried to pull rank on a state trooper over a traffic stop -- to a 2011 redistricting map that favored Democrats and the infusion of more than $25 million in outside money to preserve Democratic legislative seats.

Christie will be off campaigning in other states frequently next year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. It will provide him with an opportunity to reinforce his message that effective bipartisanship in governing can attract new votes for Republican candidates.

At the same time, he can assure future primary voters that he opposes abortion, vetoed gay marriage, blocked $300 million in federal and state aid for Planned Parenthood, vetoed legislation to ban a popular semiautomatic weapon, refused to start a state exchange to sign up new users for Obamacare, and pulled New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Yesterday, however, Christie stuck closer to home. He chose a Union City public school for his first day-after event, where he was introduced by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the Union City mayor who, along with DiVincenzo, was Christie’s staunchest Democratic supporter. Whether Stack or any of the other 50 Democratic elected officials who formally endorsed Christie will face any future party retribution is an open question.

On Election Night, Buono attacked unnamed Democratic party bosses for abandoning her campaign. Sweeney endorsed Buono and raised money for her, despite their past clashes. To Sweeney, though, one thing is certain: “We’re going to need to be united next time.”

Asked whether he planned to be that unifying candidate, Sweeney simply smiled.

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